A better path forward for criminal justice

A bronze statue titled "Justice Delayed, Justice Denied" depicting a figure of Justice is seen on the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., September 1, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in May 2020 and frequent events like it across America have added new urgency and momentum to the drive to reform our criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the debate has too often collapsed into an unhelpful binary: “support the blue” or “abolish the police.” Either of these poles would tend to have a negative impact on the very communities that have suffered disproportionately under our current criminal justice and law enforcement policies. Excessive policing and use of force, on one hand, and less public safety and social service resources on the other, can both be detrimental to communities that are exposed to high levels of criminal activity and violence. We must find a path of genuine reform, even transformation, that fosters safer, more peaceful, and more resilient communities.

In this volume, available to be downloaded as a full PDF here or to be read online as individual chapters below, experts from a broad spectrum of domains and policy perspectives offer policymakers with research-grounded analysis and recommendations to support sustained, bi-partisan reforms to move the criminal justice system toward a more humane and effective footing.

Read the introduction

Chapter 1

Police reform

A sheriff's deputy is seen inside an armored vehicle in the fenced up perimeter of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, days after former police officer Kim Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright, in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, U.S. April 14, 2021. REUTERS/Nick Pfosi

Authors: Rashawn Ray, Clark Neily

The deaths of unarmed Black Americans, including George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, and many others, at the hands of police are leading to calls for sweeping police reform. In Chapter 1, our experts lay out a series of sensible police reform ideas shared across the political spectrum, including reforming qualified immunity, addressing officer wellness, and changing the culture of “us versus them” policing.

Read Chapter 1


Chapter 2

Reimagining pretrial and sentencing

An inmate holds a sign to his cell window reading "We Matter" as Black Lives Matter supporters hold a protest against racial inequality on Father's Day outside Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. June 21, 2020.  REUTERS/Alexander Gouletas     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Authors: Pamela K. Lattimore, Cassia Spohn, Matthew DeMichele

America’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world, a condition rooted in policies and practices that result in jail for millions of individuals charged with but not convicted of a crime and lengthy jail or prison sentences for those who are convicted. In Chapter 2, our experts argue that there is an urgent need for a pretrial justice and sentencing strategy that will reduce crime and victimization, ameliorate unwarranted racial and income disparities, and reclaim human capital lost to incarceration.

Read Chapter 2


Chapter 3

Changing prisons to help people change

Inmates in the Last Mile program at San Quentin State Prison prepare to present their startup ideas in San Quentin, California February 22, 2013 . Seven San Quentin inmates presented startup proposals on “Demo Day” at the Last Mile program, an entrepreneurship course modeled on startup incubators that take in batches of young companies and provide them courses, informal advice and the seed investments to grow.  REUTERS/Gerry Shih  (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW BUSINESS SOCIETY)

Authors: Christy Visher, John Eason

Most imprisoned people will be released into society, but are they prepared to rejoin their communities and avoid a return to prison? In Chapter 3, our experts note that the lack of vocational training, education, and reentry programs makes reintegration difficult for the formerly imprisoned. They propose programming such as cognitive behavioral therapy, education, and personal development to help ease this transition.

Read Chapter 3


Chapter 4

Reconsidering police in schools

School safety police officer insignia seen during Mayor Bill de Blasio visit of Bronx Leaders of Tomorrow Richard R. Green Middle School in New York on februray 25, 2021 on reopening day during COVID-19 pandemic. About 100 students signed up to attend school for in-person learning. (Photo by Lev Radin/Sipa USA)No Use Germany.

Authors: Ryan King, Marc Schindler

Although rates of juvenile crime and arrests have declined in recent decades, the rash of school shootings since Columbine in 1999 has catalyzed federal funding for more police in schools. But these school police officers have been linked with increased arrests for non-criminal, youthful behavior. In Chapter 4, our experts offer ways to reimagine public safety in schools and change the dominant but increasingly unpopular law enforcement paradigm.

Read Chapter 4


Chapter 5

Fostering desistance

Arrowhead prison convict Robert G. (R) makes his case why he should be accepted into Peer 1 at a meeting with Peer 1 staff at the prison in Canon City, Colorado September 24, 2014. With him are (L to R) Raymond A., who was accepted into Peer 1; an unidentified man with head down; “Lucky�, who is still in prison; Steve P. who was accepted into Peer 1. Robert G. has 11 felony convictions for drug-related crimes and has been in and out of prison or rehab over the last 25 years. Robert G. was accepted into Peer 1. Peer 1 is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation programme for men, many having spent years in and out of prison, in Denver, Colorado. The men have often tried and failed over and over to turn their life around. With histories of abuse as children and living on the streets, they come to Peer 1 hoping to turn away from addiction and crime, to rebuild their lives and learn how to integrate into society. Treatment includes family group therapy, meditation and trust-building exercises. REUTERS/Rick WilkingPICTURE 1 OF 26 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "PEER 1: PRISON, DEATH OR RECOVERY". SEARCH "PEER WILKING" FOR ALL IMAGES

Authors: Shawn D. Bushway, Christopher Uggen

What makes people returning to civilian life from incarceration desist from committing crime? In Chapter 5, our experts review the literature on “desistance,” the study of why and how people stop committing crimes. They note that many people who become involved in the criminal justice system had never fully entered a pro-social adult life to begin with, and so programs designed to foster their “re-entry” into society should focus on fostering adult development.

Read Chapter 5


Chapter 6

Training and employment for correctional populations

A prison guard keeps watch during class at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York April 8, 2016. Inmates at Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium security women's prison in suburban Bedford Hills near New York City, are reading the classic works of Homer, Euripides and Virgil. The Columbia University course, organised by the non-profit Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, aims to boost employment for convicts after release and reduce rates of reoffending. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri SEARCH "TACONIC ALLEGRI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES   TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Authors: Grant Duwe, Makada Henry-Nickie

People involved in the criminal justice system tend to be undereducated and underemployed compared to the general population, and post-release employment rates eventually return to pre-prison levels. In Chapter 6, our experts call the employability of returning citizens a “moral imperative,” and so recommend policies designed to increase educational attainment and employment training for incarcerated individuals.

Read Chapter 6


Chapter 7

Prisoner reentry

Offenders research and work on their papers inside the Southwestern Baptist Theological computer lab located in the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice men's prison in Rosharon, Texas August 12, 2014. The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a private college based in Fort Worth, Texas, began its bachelor of science in biblical studies program at Darrington, south of Houston, about three years ago. To be accepted, an offender has to be at least 10 years from the possibility of parole, have a good behavior record and the appropriate academic credentials to enroll in a college course. The program, which is largely paid for by charitable contributions from the Heart of Texas Foundation, has more than 150 prisoners enrolled and plans to send its graduates as field ministers to other units who want the bible college alumni for peer counseling and spiritual guidance. The first degrees are expected to be conferred next year. Picture taken August 12, 2014. To match Feature USA-TEXAS/PRISON     REUTERS/Adrees Latif (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW EDUCATION SOCIETY RELIGION)

Authors: Annelies Goger, David J. Harding, Howard Henderson

Over 640,000 people return to their communities from prison each year, but more than half of the formerly incarcerated do not find stable employment in their first year of return, and three-quarters are rearrested within three years. In Chapter 7, our experts offer a range of policies to improve reentry outcomes and increase racial equity in the criminal justice system.

Read Chapter 7



Baltimore police

Authors: Rashawn Ray, Brent Orrell

As we prepare to exit pandemic conditions, it is a crucial time to address criminal justice reform in America. In the Conclusion to “A better path forward for criminal justice,” our experts recommend a strategic pause to gather data that will help us understand why criminal activity has gone up in recent months and inform both immediate responses as well as longer-term initiatives.

Read the conclusion

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The editors would like to thank Samantha Elizondo for her work on the project, particularly with chapter summaries and editing of the report.

    Support for this publication was generously provided by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The views expressed in this report are those of its authors and do not represent the views of the Foundation, their officers, or employees.

    The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and policy solutions. Its mission is to conduct high-quality, independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations for policymakers and the public. The conclusion and recommendations of any Brookings publication are solely those of its authors, and do not reflect the views of the Institution, its management, or its other scholars.

    The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) educational organization. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. AEI does not take institutional positions on any issues.